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Free the people to make their choices, Mr Modi

When power is centralised and exercised at the whims of those in power, democracy is in peril

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Tue 17 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 17 Sep 2019, 10:37 PM

Emerging as it did from the Great Depression of the 1930s, the US was confronted with a choice that could forever alter its political destiny. The New Deal policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had generated jobs, staved off an unthinkable famine and lifted millions of Americans from desolate poverty. But it had also significantly expanded the size and scope of the US government. Government spending during this period reached nearly a quarter of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). FDR issued a staggering 3,723 executive orders during his term: as the Cato Institute notes, 'more than all presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton combined'.
By the end of that torrid decade, there were few pieces of the economic pie in which Washington, DC had not dipped its fingers. If his predecessor Calvin Coolidge had declared the "chief business of the American people is business", FDR, through his policies, had ensured the business of the American government was business itself. The New Deal resulted in an explosion of regulatory agencies, each determined to ensure the excesses of the 'robber barons' of the 'Gilded Age' were never repeated. This pervasive and unprecedented influence of government on American life invoked the question that the Roman satirist Juvenal had elegantly posed centuries before: quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Who will guard the guards themselves?
America's response to the question took the form of another legislation: the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA's mission was straightforward: open the US government to citizens unfamiliar with its labyrinthine network of agencies and departments. But the Act also sought crucially to shine a light on the process by which the government took decisions.
India is not at the cusp of a depression, but its economic indicators portend an equally alarming scenario. This year, the per capita income of Indians rose a paltry 10 per cent-wages have just not been able to keep up with the rise in prices, resulting in the poor growth of the fast-moving consumer goods sector. Meanwhile, India's household savings rate has plummeted over the last five years. Unemployment is at a 45-year high. Exports have declined for the first time in nine months. We are saving less, trading less and consuming less. The government's callous mismanagement of the economy has ensured India has neither harvested the potential of its young, working-age population nor become an attractive destination for global businesses seeking shelter from the US-China trade war.
Ironically, the solutions to this crisis too will have to emerge partly from the Indian government, much like FDR's New Deal policies of the '30s. In fact, several analogies have been drawn by commentators between post-reforms India and the Gilded Age in the US. The decades after liberalisation in India were marked by the growth of big industrial houses-by itself, a welcome development-but also by the retreat of the Indian state from providing basic infrastructure and civic services to its citizenry. Successive Indian governments have tried, with little success, to find the magic mix of policies, regulations and budgetary allocations that could create a state-sponsored social safety net, while spurring private wealth-creation at the same time.
With the engines of the economy sputtering, it appears certain the Indian state will have to step back in with increased investments in public works, health and education. Only, Indians do not have the tools their American counterparts had to hold their government accountable as it expands and to determine their own economic future. Harry Truman-no unalloyed capitalist himself-understood the importance of opening his administration to public criticism even as it made important and irreversible decisions on the future of the US. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014 promising "minimum government, maximum governance", has all but stripped the citizenry of that most sacrosanct freedom in a republic: the freedom to know, choose and understand.
The Prime Minister and his colleagues in the BJP have long made it clear they will brook no criticism or, for that matter, any attempt to render their governance to scrutiny. The ruling party has exhibited an aversion to transparency in public affairs.
The Indian economy is at a critical crossroads-much like FDR's US-when the government's regulatory choices will determine the economic fate of industries and ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, disruptions to traditional livelihoods will become more frequent as technologies upend jobs, necessitating the occasional government intervention. Far from receding into obscurity, the Indian state is poised to play a powerful role in shaping India's 21st century choices. It is no coincidence that the freest markets contain the most powerful regulators to monitor the practices of industry. India's developmental trajectory on this count will be no different from the US or Western Europe. However, to gauge the effect on our day-to-day lives, Indians need the tools to understand why key economic decisions were made.
Independent structures to regulate and monitor the government, and to keep its power in check, are vital to a democratic state committed to freedom and justice. When power is centralised and exercised at the whims of those in power, freedom is threatened, and democracy is in peril.
The evergreen legacy of India's Independence movement is its conferring on the Indian republic the right to self-determination. But self-determination can never be total or absolute until each Indian citizen can exercise that right in its fullest sense. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have led his party to a commanding majority in the House of the People, but the true test of his leadership will be his willingness to let Indians make their judgements, decisions and choices for themselves. On this test, so far, he and his government are failing.
 -Open magazine

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